Is Twitter's introduction of an abuse reporting button really workable?

It is said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but the PR department at Twitter might well be feeling otherwise at the moment. After coming under fire for using fabricated tweets in promotional material Twitter has been in the headlines after the company faced calls to do more to combat abusive tweets.

Threats of death and rape do not make for pleasant reading, but it is something that has happened to a number of Twitter users. The most recent victims to speak out -- Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully campaigned for Jane Austin to appear on British bank notes, and UK MP Stella Creasy -- led to a grassroots campaign for Twitter to do more to police its micro-blogging service.

Bowing to pressure, Twitter has announced that an abuse reporting option will be added to the web and Android versions of its apps -- it is already available in the iOS app and on the mobile website.

I have opined about the futility of trying to police the web, but it is clear that something needs to be done to prevent illegal activity. Making death threats in the real world is illegal, and there is no reason for Twitter, or the Internet in general, to be any different.

The difficulty comes from finding a way to make online laws work. It is all well and good having an international law that makes threatening others online illegal. But if a death threat is made against someone, how do the relevant authorities go about tracking down the perpetrator? Sure IP logs can help to some extent, but it's very easy to create an online account using false credentials and to spoof an IP address.

It is impractical to think that Twitter could self-police. If there is one thing we have learned from the NSA debacle it's that gathering activity data about non-specific users generates more information than can be practically dealt with.

So it is left to other users to do the policing. The introduction of a 'Report abuse' button seems like a good idea, but it is going to be open to abuse. See a tweet you disagree with? Report it as abuse. Fallen out with someone and want to get back at them? Report all of their tweets as abusive. This seems petty, but it's very likely that this is exactly how things will pan out.

And if the abuse reporting button is to be of any use at all, Twitter will have to spend time and money properly investigating every single report -- regardless of whether it was a report of a serious crime, or a petty squabble between two people.

Then there is the problem of the boy who cried wolf. There will undoubtedly be people who misuse any means of reporting problems -- just as people misuse the emergency services number -- but should someone who does this be blacklisted? What if that same person is then the subject of legitimate threats?

The whole idea of policing any aspect of the internet is a tricky one. No one has yet come up with an ideal approach, but the very fact that so many people are now talking about it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps a crowd-sourced solution will emerge from all of the unpleasantness and debating.

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